Warm holiday greetings to you all and thank you, David and Slate; needless but still important to say, it’s an honor. And now down to business. Did any of you happen to read an interview online with Justin Theroux, the young actor who plays the hip but hapless director in Mulholland Drive? The juiciest moment concerned that crazy scene in an abandoned corral above the Hollywood Hills, opposite the character named The Cowboy. For those of you who haven’t seen the movie, The Cowboy is a redhead in, say, his late 30s who’s nearly albino-pale. He speaks in a country drawl and, for no discernible reason, wears a 10-gallon hat, vest, and chaps and chews on a strand of straw. He appears in one key scene and later in a quick walk-by cameo, still fully costumed, and in both he displays a weird double effect: 1) looks like the fun, friendly adult in a children’s TV show—the confidante kids go to for advice; 2) has unfathomable sinister ambitions/is probably a killer.
In the interview, Theroux relates how the guy who played The Cowboy is actually a producer friend of David Lynch’s who never acted a day in his life. In the corral scene, they had to tape his lines of dialogue to Theroux’s chest and forehead, and Lynch instructed him to simply read out the lines, slowly, in his flat, drawling monotone. That’s the performance you get on screen. Theroux joked about how the scene was an assault on everything we think acting should be. He also called it one of the best performances in the movie, and he’s right.
I bring this up because the three or four strongest films this year have a brazen, rule-breaking oddity about them—which has presented a new challenge, for me at least, as a critic. In almost every movie I most admired, the brazenness resulted in obvious flaws, jaw-droppingly garish choices, brave but failed gambits and convolutions. A certain abstract dryness of tone where the audience is used to Sturm und Drang, or unhinged angst where the audience normally itches for resolution. A third act that seems to be 31 acts long. A boogeyman monster who’s supposed to be scary but looks like a guy with shoe polish and newspaper strips pasted onto his head. It was sometimes hard to recommend these films, in the strict consumer sense that a critic is asked to recommend, because I could not say with any certainty, “Try it; you’ll like it.” It was more like, “Try it; you’ll adore it or not ask my opinion again.” (For anyone jumping to conclusions out there, I’m not talking about pointy-headed people who have the patience to sit through complex films versus non-pointy heads who need to be guided. If anything, the pointies I know were more impatient with Mulholland Drive than the nons.)
But these brazen imperfections paid off. They twisted and bent the staid rules of five-act drama, told jokes you couldn’t see coming, and had an invigorated sense of what was permissible to satirize (Donnie Darko) or be honest about (Monster’s Ball) or celebrate (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, though it’s further down my list) in American culture. Well-crafted and gorgeously acted as films like In the Bedroom and A Beautiful Mind were, they took a much more careful, self-consciously “quality” road and felt comparatively obvious as a result.
For the rest of this week, I’d like to make a case for two sci-fi-noir-tragicomedies (The Man Who Wasn’t There, Donnie Darko) that are both melancholy, deep, and mischievous fun. I’d also like to talk about the drought for good comedies—sorry, Shallow Hal—and invite a few deserving foreign strays (The Taste of Others, Together) in from the cold. By the way, readers, I’m kind of sorry to add yet more titles into this mix. I feel for people trying to make sense of these and other best lists, at a time when Critic A fails to mention Critic B’s top nine choices and Critic C mentions 10 new films altogether. (Where is Memento, some might ask of my favorites, or Moulin Rouge or Shrek or The Deep End or Ghost World, which I liked less than most of you last week?) But alas, this, it seems to me, is the story of movies in 2001. With the exception of the grand, rousing Lord of the Rings, there were few universally enjoyed and admired films this year. Instead there was randomness, subjectivity. Frustration that more good films didn’t unite wider cross sections of people behind them. But gratitude for the unusual variety of smaller delights on offer.